Whoosh! Issue 84 - January 2004


By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Content © 2003 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2003 held by Whoosh!
9223 words

Author's Note

This is based upon my Senior Thesis at San Jose State University, submitted 2003. My thanks to all of my buddies at the Flawless and Merpup list who let me pick their brains for this project. Thanks all! I hope you know I'll need to do more picking a year from now when I start my master's thesis! All feedback is welcomed.

Pronunciation for Wuxia Pian is: "wooshar pan"

Wuxia Pian: Historical and Political Concepts (01-16)
The Wuxia Tradition (17-18)
Wuxia Pian in the Twentieth Century (19-25)
Hong Kong Meets Wuxia Pian (26-28)
The Evolution of Wuxia Pian (29-32)
The West Meets Wuxia Pian (33-34)
Xena: Wuxia Pian (35-49)
Wuxia Pian: The Twenty-First Century (50-55)
Wuxia Pian Lives (56)


Wuxia Pian: Historical and Political Concepts

[01] One can hardly watch an American action movie or popular television show without seeing the influence from the Hong Kong movie genre. Wuxia Pian, as it is commonly referred to, incorporates a hero canon as well as the finely detailed choreographic actions scenes filled with high-flying kicks and supernatural feats. At one time this form of martial arts film was uncommon in American television and movies, but now it is a common staple of the Hollywood industry. Hong Kong directors such as King Hu, [Note 01] Zhang Che, [Note 02] Tsui Hark, [Note 03] and Ronny Yu [Note 04], just to name a few, have had a direct hand in influencing the style of Hollywood movies and television shows. Though only trying to preserve the traditional mythology of Chinese heroes from the cultural contamination from Great Britain and the United States, the Hong Kong film directors inadvertently influenced the American entertainment industry. To fully understand how both the wuxia style of mythology and the phenomena within America came about, one must first understand the historical and philosophical concepts that brought about the genre's inception. Only by understanding the historical and political atmosphere of the times, will the revivalist movement for such tales be understood.

Influenced by Maynard G. Krebs Influenced by Alec Baldwin doing Mamet Influenced by the Men in Black

Tsui Hark, King Hu, and Ronny Yu

[02] Long before Sir Thomas Mallory wrote his legendary tales of chivalry and knightly deeds in his 1485 novel, Le Morte d'Arthur, there were legends of valiant heroes traveling the countryside in search of adventures and the opportunity to perform chivalric deeds. A continent away from the tales of King Arthur and his knights, China already had a mythology filled with tales of heroes performing supernatural feats. These tales, known as the Wuxia legends, chronicled the heroic travels of both male and female swordmasters [Note 05]. These stories were not only an embodiment of heroism but they were a direct result of the teachings of Confucius philosophy as well as Buddhist and Taoist religious beliefs. [Note 06]

[03] While many credit the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes with the social contract theory, a view which outlines the moral relationships between a king and his subjects, Confucius (552 - 479 B.C.E.) and his philosophy regarding the conduct of a ruler toward his subjects predates Hobbes. [Note 07] Confucius lived through the turbulent era in China known as the Warring States that lasted from approximately 475 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E. [Note 08] China during this period was in the grips of feudal struggles between rival clans all vying for control. Owing to the constant strife, Confucius was acutely aware of the need for social order both in political and personal affairs. It was from his observations of the world around him that he formed numerous philosophical beliefs; however, for the discussion of this paper, and his direct impact on wuxia literature, I will only focus on his teachings regarding the proper conduct of an Emperor and warrior class.

[04] Like Hobbes, Confucius placed great value in loyalty to the Emperor. In addition to subject loyalty, he emphasized the importance of obedience and duty toward the family, with the father as head of the household. By placing the family as the basis for society, Confucius effectively taught respect toward elders and the concept that those who are stronger, the adult children, must protect those who were weaker, the aged parent/grandparent figure. [Note 09] Unlike Hobbes, Confucius did not subscribe to the notion that the Emperor had a divine right to rule. Instead, he taught that with great power came great responsibility and he advised the Emperor that in matters pertaining to his subjects, the ruler must always be noble and treat his subjects judiciously. Additionally, he counseled the warriors who supported the feudal rulers, that they were to conduct themselves with nobility, and that their responsibility toward the people was to act gallantly, with valor, and have valiant conduct. [Note 10] It is from the teachings of Confucius that the foundation of wuxia literature was set in place.

[05] Another key player in the formation of the wuxia genre is the well-known philosopher and religious leader Siddartha Gautama, also known as Buddha. Buddha was born in India around 448-368 B.C.E. as a prince. Like the Warring States Era in China, India was submerged in turbulence. However, as a prince, Buddha was relatively immune to the suffering of the common man. It was not until he ventured away from his palace that the severity of suffering caused the young nobleman to renounce his title and worldly possessions to enable him to search for a solution to the dilemmas of mans. [Note 11] Like Confucius, Buddha developed teachings that could take a lifetime for a student to learn, so for the purpose of this thesis, I will only outline the philosophical beliefs that were incorporated into the wuxia tales.

[06] From his observation, Buddha formed what is known today as the Four Noble Truths. In these truths he found that life, from birth through death, was filled with suffering. He also noted that the cause of suffering was man's own desires, whether it is through attachments to people or things. In order to end the suffering, Buddha believed that one must first end all attachments of the self from people, from objects, and from the need for self-preservation. By understanding the four noble truths, Buddha believed that one was then able to work toward a state of Nirvana, which was a state of existence free from suffering. In addition to the noble truths and other teachings, Buddha believed that it was the responsibility of each individual to attempt to alleviate as much suffering from their fellow man as possible. In order to succeed in this, it was felt that only when an individual releases the notion of self would he be able to begin to act for the sake of others, or act for the greater good. [Note 12]

[07] In the beginning, Buddha's teachings were never fully embraced by his own people. However, because of the notion of self-sacrifice, Buddhist philosophies soon found an eager audience in neighboring China. Together with the teachings of Confucius, the notions of nobility, gallantry, judiciousness, valiant conduct, valor, and self-sacrificing actions found an eager following.

[08] What changed the scope of Buddhism was the introduction of the physical disciplines that we have become familiar with today. It is estimated that around 520 B.C.E. an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma, after joining a Shaolin Buddhist temple in China, invented a form of physical techniques that were patterned after the tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake, and dragon, animals that he either saw around him or studied within the folklore of Chinese writings. [Note 13] The movements were meant to enhance the ch'i, the electrifying life force contained within each living being, to the point where each monk was able to not only concentrate on their meditations, but also to follow through on Buddha's original teachings of self sacrifice through the use of self defense, for the betterment of society. [Note 14] This new style of quick moving boxing motions came to be known as Kung Fu.

[09] Speculation regarding the foundation of Taoism abounds; however, scholars and historians have placed the foundation of Taoism during the founder's life. Like his predecessors, Lao Tzu, born around 300 B.C.E., founded the teachings of the Tao as a response to the then current turbulent social situation that existed in China. [Note 15] Utilizing a combination of the Confucius beliefs in the proper conduct of a ruler and warriors, as well as the Buddhist teachings of self-sacrifice, Lao Tzu went further by stating that people were not only able to be virtuous, but that the act itself was something that was innate within every human consciousness. Additionally, he believed that human life was influenced by outside forces. [Note 16] It is in Taoism where the introduction of animism, the belief that every living thing and object has life, was first introduced. Additionally, alchemy, well known in China at this time, was brought into the Taoist philosophy.

[10] In Taoist alchemy, the concept of the ch'i from Buddhist teachings was incorporated and enhanced. Taoists believed that the ch'i was created in the body and was purified by meditation, proper nutrition, and life habits. Through the ch'i, power was circulated throughout the body to the twelve psychic areas. [Note 17] The Taoist monk, Chang San-feng, further built upon the teachings of the ch'i and incorporated the movements of the Shaolin order of Kung Fu to invent what is considered to be the "soft" form known as t'ai chi chuan. [Note 18]

[11] Early writings from master Chang San-Feng detail how, through meditation and practice, both students and masters of t'ai chi chuan were able to perfect the art to the point where the performer of the boxing movements, and with the use of their ch'i, were able to "soar through the air" during their battles. [Note 19] It was also written that masters of t'ai chi chuan were able to administer a single, lethal blow against their opponent that would cause death. [Note 20]. Although such feats have yet to be physically proven, it is necessary to include this into the research owing to the fact that it directly impacts upon the wuxia writings and subsequent adaptations into the modern American film genre.

[12] It is important at this point to introduce the final figure who played a prominent role in the creation of wuxia tales. Meng-Tzu, also known as Mencuis, is estimated to have lived one hundred years after Confucius, and near the latter end of the Warring States era. Although a devout follower of Confucius, he formed differing viewpoints from the teachings of the founder. Like Confucius, he strived to find ways that would create better forms of government for his people. He subscribed to the belief that the emperor was in power by and for the people, and that it was therefore necessary that the ruling leader not only deal with his subjects in fairness, but that he had a direct responsibility toward the people. He taught that rulers should govern the people by the principle of Yi, through righteousness, and not from profit.[Note 21]

[13] Mencuis extended his teachings toward the entire social stratification that existed within China. While the rulers were responsible toward their subjects, as fathers are to their family, those who were physically stronger were responsible for their countrymen who were unable to protect themselves even to the extent of standing up against an unjust emperor. [Note 22] This philosophical belief not only incorporated the teachings of the greater good, as well as Confucian belief of respect toward family and elders, but it also pulled into the notion that monks, and their students, were able to take a stand against tyranny when the battle was viewed as just or righteous.

[14] Another major component within Meng-Tzu's teachings was that education and status could be attained by all regardless of social standing or gender. No longer was a title an inherent gift passed down from father to son. Now, any individual who chose to study with a master could attain titles such as warrior or master. Long before the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his view on education, Meng-Tzu had outlined the way in which his and other teachings were to be passed down, either through group study, as in the formal environment of a monastery, or by learning from a mentor. [Note 23]

[15] Either as a way to disseminate the teachings amongst the masses, or as a form of pure entertainment, no one is certain how the wuxia tales initially began. What is well known is that it was during the latter years of Meng-Tzu that the canons for the wuxia literature finally reached its nexus. [Note 24] Such tales are known to have traveled the land through itinerant storytellers and traveling acting troupes whose main function was to entertain as well as teach.

The Wuxia Tradition

What you think is clever special effects is actually a closeup of Ronny Yu's electric fan.  Disillusioning, isn't it?

A typical wuxia pian movie scene
The Swordsman

[16] Wuxia tales had similar components within them that distinguished them apart from other mythology and legends in China. The major story lines of wuxia tales all dealt with a swordmaster, either male or female, who traveled the lands and in their journeys, performed heroic deeds for the betterment of society. With their superior knowledge of the art of war, sword fighting and physical training in Kung Fu, and more specifically, t'ai chi chuan, the hero of the story was able to harness their ch'i in order to perform superhuman feats during battles. [Note 25] Although some wuxia tales encompass only a single protagonist hero, far more incorporate the addition of a secondary character within the story lines. [Note 26] In the second form of tales, the protagonist of the stories always began their journeys alone, but through happenstance or the actual seeking of a novice end up with another traveler with the specific intent of becoming their mentor. [Note 27] By the addition of the secondary character, the relationship between a master and student was reinforced.

[17] Whether they tell about a single hero, or two, all wuxia stories described the heroes as incorporating the virtues of judiciousness, gallantry, nobility, virtue, valiant conduct, valor, and self sacrifice by acting for the greater good of the community rather than the self. All of the tales described events where the protagonist hero and their student, if one were in the story, would defend those who could not defend themselves. Although the wuxia tales describe their protagonist as "knight" errant, the major differences between the wuxia tales, and those of later, Western authors is the notion of aristocracy. Whereas the tales that were derived from British and European lore describe the hero knight as being of royal blood, the wuxia hero, although considered a knight, derived from common lineage and through training and discipline earned the status of master. [Note 28] This major difference made it possible for individuals, regardless of rank, to effect a social change that placed them in a higher class than what was afforded in the social stratification of the European aristocracy.

[18] For many centuries, wuxia folklore made its way into the lives of both the common people and nobility of China. The tales that outlined heroic deeds encompassed all aspects of life including the camaraderie between the student and mentor, and shifted in names and locations for each individual region. Through the changing political face of China, the wuxia tales continued the retelling of the journeys of heroes; however, a slight change began to take place between the time of Mencius and the modern era. [Note 29] Although the main protagonist of the tale remained a virtuous character, in some of the tales a darker side began to emerge from the hero. The darkness they found themselves battling was a part of their own ch'i that was allowed to do harm, rather than help those who were weaker. Because of this, they found themselves faced with a challenge that pitted them against their own internal darkness. [Note 30] In these tales, the hero figure is only able to find redemption by returning to their original teachings in order to find the strength necessary to harness the power of ch'i to continue on the hero's path even to the extent of self-sacrifice.

Wuxia Pian in the Twentieth Century

The Peking Opera was unavailable, so this is a picture of the last Cher tour. As you can see, the two are virtually indistinguishable.

The Peking Opera

[19] Up until the revolution in 1949 that brought about the People's Republic of China, wuxia literature was a popular form of fiction. The tales of heroism, virtue, valor and selfless acts were not only written by countless story tellers, but the tales were commonly reenacted by traveling groups of actors across the countryside. When the Peking Opera was established in 1790 under the Qing dynasty, wuxia tales were dramatically acted out on stage complete with music, elaborate costumes, set designs, and makeup. [Note 31]

[20] After the communist victory over the head of China's Nationalist government, Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, under Mao Tse-tung, the literature and theatre of the past was rebuked as being part of the elitist bourgeois class. Under Chairman Mao's rule, anything that espoused ideals or lessons from the past era of China was destroyed or locked away from the people for their protection. Even quoting lessons from the philosopher, Mencuis, also known as Meng-Tzu, would bring harsh punishment from the government. [Note 32] According to Dr. Jiang, Professor at San Jose State University, within the new government of the People's Republic of China, individual acts of heroism to save people were not viewed as being heroic, yet acts such as attempting to put out a fire in a burning building in order to save the property of the government were viewed as heroic. [Note 33] Once Chairman Mao took leadership of the Chinese government, inanimate objects, such as land, buildings and equipment were raised in value over human life and the notion of heroic virtue was no longer considered honorable, but became a relic of a past Imperial government.

[21] Under Communist China's rule, art and literature became a tool used for propaganda. Although a former movie star, Mao's third wife, Jiang Qing, began purging the arts of what was considered to be obsessions with past empires. [Note 34] The old style of wuxia tales was replaced with contemporary stories that dealt with revolutionary themes. It was at this point when the philosophical and religious concepts held within the wuxia form of stories were seen as harmful for the masses. In following the Marxist ideology, anything harkening to religious thoughts was viewed as counter revolutionary. This new dogma resulted in the humiliation, persecution, torture, and later death of thousands of writers, actors, directors, artists, and other intellectuals. [Note 35]

[22] With the new communist ideology a new form of bureaucracy was created with the single intent of approving or banning various forms of artistic endeavors whether it be art, songs, literature, or drama. The communist party created the Film Bureau Division to monitor all audio visual productions and censor accordingly. [Note 36] While some writers and directors chose to remain in mainland China, using covert images within their films to convey their messages of discontent, others chose to relocate to Hong Kong, where they would be allowed greater artistic freedom with their movies.

[23] The colonization of Hong Kong is quite conceivably the most shameful incident to occupy British history. It was during the 1830's when British importers began what is known in history as the Opium Wars. Despite such acts being outlawed in their own country, British traders with the full knowledge of their government officials, began exporting opium from India into China in exchange for goods such as tea and fine silks. [Note 37] What resulted was the Chinese government taking a stand against the British attempt to turn its subjects into opium addicts and in November of 1839, a small flotilla of Chinese junkets attempted to turn a British ship away. Using this as an excuse, the British government sent an armada of warships and personnel against the Chinese "old style weapons and artillery." [Note 38]

[24] The eventual downfall of China resulted in the Treaty of Nanking, which effectively made it possible for British subjects to occupy the port cities of Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, Ningpo, and Amoy for the purpose of free and legal drug trade of opium in exchange for Chinese goods. In addition to the occupation of these cities, the port city of Hong Kong was ceded to England. The proliferation of opium continued unabated throughout China until the revolution that established the People's Republic of China. Under Mao's regime, in addition to the censorship of artist and writers, the new government held zero tolerance toward drug suppliers and users. Unable to reclaim control over the city lost to the British, Hong Kong continued to be an occupied colony controlled by the British government.

[25] The writers and directors who fled from Mao's regime to Hong Kong were faced with the imperialism of British rule. The language and cultural attributes of their heritage were in direct conflict with the British government and social way of life. As a way of enforcing total assimilation and control over the indigenous people, England passed laws that made it illegal for the Chinese language to be spoken in Hong Kong. [Note 39] Additionally, institutional racism existed by means of laws that placed the descendant of Chinese and newly immigrated Chinese at an economical disadvantage with the British born subjects. [Note 40] This, combined with the changing dynamics within the families began to raise concerns among the writers and directors who emigrated from Mainland China.

Hong Kong Meets Wuxia Pian

I've seen this film, and this part was actually a lot cooler than it appears here. Trust me on this.

Michelle Yeoh
Butterfly and Sword

[26] There are differing views as to who is to be credited with the creation of the Hong Kong wuxia film genre. While many point to a company called The Shaw Brothers, others still point to various names of directors and writers who produced their own films. However, according to Stephen Teo, in his book Hong Kong Cinema, the two directors who are responsible for the 1960's revivalist movement of the wuxia genre are King Hu and Zhang Che. [Note 41] Regardless of who began the genre, what remains evident is that a collective action on the part of many mainland immigrants began a transformative movement in the story lines of Hong Kong movies in the mid-1960's.

[27] The colonial imperialism and occupation of Hong Kong not only brought about a social destabilization of the Chinese immigrants, but it had an impact on the future generation's collective consciousness of their ethnic heritage. With the commercialization from western culture the second generation of Chinese descendants turned away from the teachings of their parents in favor of western views. They began to embrace the television, movies, dress, and music of both England and the United States. With the loss of their language and traditional values, the cultural assimilation by substitution was a very real threat to the first generation of Hong Kong film directors and writers. As previously stated, as an attempt to preserve their cultural heritage, writers and directors began a collaborative effort to revive the philosophical and religious values of the ancient wuxia mythology. [Note 42] These tales, when transformed to the modern media of film began to be called Wuxia Pian. The literal translation of wuxia is martial chivalry, which was the original name ascribed to a canon of tales and the literal translation of pian means film. [Note 43]

[28] Despite the fact that there were Hong Kong Kung Fu movies that existed before the introduction of Wuxia Pian, these early movies were filmed to showcase the quick actions of Kung Fu style boxing rather than follow the tenets of wuxia mythology. After the revivalist movement began, story lines within the movies began to mimic the tales that were once performed by the Peking Opera. [Note 44] The tales told of ancient dynasties and valiant heroes who were using superhuman abilities in order to protect the weak. Near the end of the decade, the hero was depicted as superior not only in hand to hand combat, but also with swords. Like the ancient mythology, the movies showcased heroes of both genders. For King Hu, his films were always set during the Ming Dynasty where the protagonist was always a swordswoman with superhuman qualities. [Note 45]

The Evolution of Wuxia Pian

In case you can't tell, those are Jackie Chan's feet. And he wasn't REALLY drunk.  D'oh!

Jackie Chan
Legend of Drunken Master

[29] Just as the ancient wuxia tales metamorphosed with the changing political environments, so too did Wuxia Pian. Some of the stories took on a comic flair by which the audience could find humor within the story. The comedy was in a form that could be viewed as either slapstick or camp. The 1978 film Drunken Master, directed by Yuen Woo-Ping and starring Jackie Chan was the first movie to introduce overt comedy aspects. In Drunken Master, Jackie Chan portrays an already established Cantonese movie character, Wong Fei-Hung. By playing a young trickster character, the protagonist is able to defeat a mercenary who was hired to kill the hero's father.

[30] Despite the comical antics and skillfully choreographed stunts, the message of these comedies remained firmly within the canon of Wuxia Pian. Just as the 1721 novel Persian Letters by Montesquieu offered the means to criticize the existing government of the time through satire, the new forms of Wuxia Pian comedy made it possible for the writers and directors to showcase their views against the occupation of Hong Kong and British colonization. [Note 46] Through the incorporation of comedy, directors and writers had more leeway to covertly add social commentary regarding the institutional racism that was a direct result of British colonization. With the subterfuge of satire within a historical context, Wuxia Pian directors demonstrated their ability to express their outrage, aggression, and anger toward the effects of urban industrialization as well as the British domination of Hong Kong. [Note 47] Despite the comedy aspects, the protagonist always held the hero qualities that were ascribed in the original wuxia mythology.

[31] While the first generation of movies remained true to the original canon of a knight-errant who wandered the countryside, as later movies were released, the quality of the protagonist slowly shifted to incorporate a darker, more troubled, self-destructive psyche. [Note 48] In following with the Confucian doctrine of "With great power comes great responsibility", the hero finds themselves filled with angst over past incidents they perceive to be responsible for. Either out of accident, or from intentional misuse of their power, their ch'i, the leading character finds themselves embroiled within their own guilt as they attempt to make right the mistakes of their past. [Note 49] Always in the end, whatever sin is perceived is resolved. While some Wuxia Pian allowed their characters to learn from the past mistakes and continue to journey the lands, other films could only resolve the issue by utilizing the Buddhist philosophy of self-sacrifice for the greater good wherein the hero dies while correcting the mistakes of their past.

[32] Despite how the directors chose to write their characters, each movie held the elements of Wuxia Pian. While some remained firmly etched within ancient time frames, others brought the canon into the modern era. Through it all the writers and directors, in their attempt to preserve a part of their cultural heritage for their children, found a wide spreading audience outside of the Hong Kong borders and especially in the American audience.

The West Meets Wuxia Pian

Unlike the Michelle Yeoh picture, this one is actually a lot cooler than it appears on film.  Funny, how that works...

Tom Laughlin
Billy Jack

[33] According to David Desser, the author of the book Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity, the first American-produced movie to follow in the Wuxia Pian tenet was the 1972 movie titled Billy Jack. [Note 50] Independently produced and starring Tom Laughlin, the movie chronicles a protagonist who, through his journeys, happens upon a Native American reservation which is being threatened by the nearby all white community. Although the movie did incorporate a few of the earmarked characteristics of Wuxia Pian, the major distinction that caused it to fall outside of the boundaries of wuxia mythology was the lack of supernatural qualities. The martial arts scenes held no special effects nor did it showcase the hero figure as the superhuman hero who had mastered their ch'i. Therefore, it is my contention that although the movie was the first to be completely produced and entirely cast by an American company, it did not fall within the Wuxia Pian format. However, what the movie Billy Jack can be credited for was the opening of doors for future martial arts movies in America entirely produced by an American company. [Note 51]

[34] The movie Billy Jack managed to make a connection with the younger audience whose distinct leanings were toward the counterculture and rebellion against authority. The clearly visible anti-Vietnam war message, combined with Native American rights, found an eager audience who not only related to the theme, but embraced it as part of their own social morés. Owing to this audience appeal and the relative box office success at that time, it was the first martial arts movie that was completely filmed by an American company to be picked up by a major studio, Warner Brothers. [Note 52]. Through this financial backing the movie was widely distributed to an even larger audience. Despite its lack of being Wuxia Pian, it paved the way for the true Wuxia Pian formatted show, entirely produced by an American company, to enter into the American culture.

Xena: Wuxia Pian

Admit it--seeing Xena appear in an article like this still gives you a thrill, doesn't it?

Lucy Lawless
Xena: Warrior Princess

[35] The first evidence of true Wuxia Pian entered into the American pop culture on September 4, 1995 in a show created by the American business team of Sam Rami and Robert Tapert of Pacific Renaissance Pictures. Although Americans financially backed it, the show itself was filmed in New Zealand. Xena: Warrior Princess, produced by Michigan State University alumnus Robert Tapert, introduced the American audience to a slick, fast-paced, one hour show that hybridized an eclectic mix of their own brand of Greek mythology combined with choreographed fight scenes reminiscent of Hong Kong Wuxia Pian films. What made this show unique were the intricate story lines that mixed high drama with comical satire. Through the entire show, Xena: Warrior Princess encapsulated the mythological wuxia canon from the Mencuis' era.

[36] According to Robert Weisbrot's book, The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, a great deal of the credit for the creation of the myths in the episodes in Xena: Warrior Princess goes to a team of excellent writers, headed by R.J Stewart, and the entire production team, from Rob Tapert, to co-producer Liz Friedman as well as the actors, directors, casting director, costume and set designers of the show. While the producer, actors, cast, and crew involved in the show are always quick to mirror this sentiment, in my opinion, the vision for the show remains with the producer, Robert Tapert. Despite the fact that he is not a writer by trade, Robert Tapert always worked closely with the staff as the episodes were being created. [Note 53] Either on a conscious level, or unconscious, Robert Tapert produced a show that followed the ancient wuxia literature, while also incorporating the new additions of satire from the Hong Kong Wuxia Pian directors.

[37] In interviews Robert Tapert is forthcoming to state that in filming Xena: Warrior Princess, he was influenced by the films of Hong Kong. [Note 54] He culled many of his visual ideas for Xena: Warrior Princess from films like The Bride With White Hair, starring Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and directed by Ronny Yu; [Note 55] and Once Upon a Time in China 2, starring Jet Li Lian-Jee and directed by legendary filmmaker, Tsui Hark. Additionally, Robert Tapert states that the main hero character of Xena was derived from both Hong Kong and Clint Eastwood movies. [Note 56] Both in the strong female heroes, as well as villains combined with the cinematography and carefully choreographed stunts, Xena: Warrior Princess harkens to his fondness of the Hong Kong genre. [Note 57] In an interview, actor/director Reneé O'Connor stated:

…He [Robert Tapert] sent me a pile of excerpts from fights in Hong Kong movies to watch to try and find something that would be spectacular enough to hold an entire act. I spent weeks and weeks rediscovering the Hong Kong movie industry and saw how beautifully they're shot…. [Note 58]
This quote shows how, through his leadership, Robert Tapert facilitated the show in the direction which paid tribute to the Hong Kong films he enjoyed watching.

[38] From the very first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, SINS OF THE PAST, written by Robert Tapert, the ancient style of wuxia mythology is laid out for the viewers. In the style of the latter wuxia writings, Xena is filled with angst from the criminal actions of her past. As a way of finding redemption, she battles against an evil warlord to save a village. This scenario follows the precepts set down by Buddha of self-sacrifice combined with the teachings of gallantry, valiant acts, and valor which were set down by Confucius. In addition to these traits that fall within the wuxia canon, it is in this first episode that Xena accepts the character Gabrielle, albeit reluctantly, as a traveling companion. Through this mentor-student dynamic the philosophy of student learning from master reinforces Mencuis' early teachings.

[39] Over the six years that Xena: Warrior Princess aired, there were numerous episodes that reflected the wuxia mythology. Whether Xena is attempting to teach a future Amazon queen how to properly conduct herself as a leader, [Note 59] or the hero and her companion are battling against evil in order to save a community, the pre-set canon of the ancient Chinese mythology is depicted throughout the episodes. However, for the purpose of this paper, I will only outline a few individual episodes that showcase the wuxia tenets.

[40] In the episode WHEN FATES COLLIDE, written by Katherine Fugate, the audience is shown a view of the hero as she would have been if fate were changed. In this alternative universe, the gallant nobility combined with justice toward their subjects that was taught by Confucius is depicted when the Empress Xena shows mercy upon Gabrielle, a bard whom, in this episode, she has never met before. By displaying acts of kindness, she follows the teachings of a ruler acting judiciously toward a subject. Although these traits are seen throughout many episodes, in no other is it more prevalently showcased than in WHEN FATES COLLIDE.

[41] Not only is valiant conduct and valor depicted in the episode ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, which was written by Gene O'Neill and Noreen Tobin, but also the mentor-novice relationship is further demonstrated between the hero, Xena, and her companion, Gabrielle. The episode opens with Gabrielle questioning Xena about a particular technique that she has mastered. This scene supports Mencius' philosophy of mentor/student. In addition to reinforcing the relationship between the two characters, valiant conduct and valor is illustrated when the hero single-handedly, through her own physical discipline, teachings of the ch'i and strength, is able to fight off an army which would have conquered, and presumably killed or enslaved the common people.

[42] The canon of self-sacrifice of the protagonist fills many episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, however in my view no other episode contains this lesson more clearly than in the season finale of FRIEND IN NEED, that was written by Robert Tapert and R.J. Stewart. Along with the philosophy of self-sacrifice, this episode encapsulates all the tenets set down for wuxia mythology. Within this episode, the hero is faced with an action that she committed in the past that caused the suffering and death of villagers. In following along the darker forms of wuxia literature, the hero confronts a past misdeed, and in rectifying it, she must come to terms with her own darkness. Like the changing tales of wuxia, the notion of having a superhuman hero who held human flaws was vividly depicted in this final episode. The actor who portrayed Xena, Lucy Lawless, described her character as "a very flawed hero." [Note 60] Yet, like the stories that were common within the Peking Opera, the hero, through her self-sacrifice to the extent of losing her own life, found redemption for herself and those whom she caused harm toward.

[43] In addition to self-sacrifice, another important factor that follows the wuxia tenets concerning the relationship between the hero and her student companion. Throughout the episode FRIEND IN NEED, we are shown the deliberate actions that Xena takes in order to pass along the final lessons. In the scene where she is sitting in a meditation position and demonstrating the death strike, the protagonist effectively teaches her student all the knowledge which she knows thereby releasing Gabrielle from the role of apprentice to that of master status. By encapsulating these lessons within the final episode, the philosophies of the wuxia tenets are further enhanced.

[44] While Xena: Warrior Princess followed the canons set down by ancient Chinese mythology, it also incorporated the aspects of the more modern Hong Kong directors. Although the show rarely held political satire, it had numerous episodes that demonstrated humor at its own expense. In the episode THE PLAY'S THE THING, written by Ashley Gable and Thomas A. Swyden, the viewers are shown a glimpse of what it might take for Gabrielle to recreate her plays in a theatre venue. We see a burly woman who bears no resemblance to Xena, dressed in leather as an attempt to win the role of the hero in the secondary play. The humor of this episode is that it allows the cast to make fun of itself both through the script as well as the casting of characters.

[45] In following the tenets of wuxia literature, Xena: Warrior Princess incorporated the concepts of the alchemy of Taoism. From the ability to fly through the air, to her death defying fight scenes and even to the lethal blow that is described in the ancient writings of Chen San-Feng, Xena: Warrior Princess followed the canon of wuxia literature. The story of the errant knight, born of common lineage and rising in status through her own abilities and teachings was mirrored throughout the show. Furthermore, the lessons that were taught to her companion, Gabrielle, reinforce the teachings that would eventually place the student within the ranks of a master.

[46] Just as the wuxia mythology transformed in the hands of the Hong Kong directors, Xena: Warrior Princess metamorphosed into a show that would reach the American audience. By using the carefully choreographed stunts that had become a favorite of the action seeking audience, combined with the modern day language and euphemism, the popularity of Xena reached proportions rarely seen for a television audience. When it first aired it received 97% of the television audience and became a main staple for the viewing public. [Note 61] In an interview, actor Lucy Lawless stated:

Each demographic took something different from it… It had a really wide demographic appeal… [Note 62]

[47] Albeit unknown by the players involved, the show followed an already tested formula of the wuxia style of storytelling. In the same interview, Lucy Lawless stated:

I guess the show was really about friendship and courage… not just courage against the enemy within, you know, your own demons. It was about rebirth and forgiveness. [Note 63]

[48] The traits Lucy Lawless mentioned are the similar attributes that are found in the ancient wuxia writings, as well as the Hong Kong style of Wuxia Pian. It was this style of writing that brought about the universal appeal of the show and garnered a larger audience than might have previously been expected.

[49] Although the major players involved in the making of Xena: Warrior Princess modestly downplay the significance of the show, were it not for its original inception and subsequent airing on American networks, the door might not have been open for other wuxia themes to enter into the American mainstream television and movie industry. Xena: Warrior Princess was the first long lasting show that featured a woman as a swordmaster and warrior. Additionally, it brought the choreographic stunts and compelling story lines of judiciousness, gallantry, virtue, valiant conduct, valor, and self sacrifice into American homes on a weekly basis and in doing so, inadvertently introduced the canons of wuxia to a demographic group that might never have had the opportunity to embrace its philosophies.

Wuxia Pian: The Twenty-First Century

Funny; she doesn't look Wuxian.

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Buffy: Vampire Slayer

[50] The widely popular television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, produced by Joss Whedon, is another example of the Wuxia Pian style being adapted for an American audience. Like past Wuxia Pian story lines and the American version of Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer incorporates all of the attributes found in the ancient writings of wuxia literature. The show has a hero in the form of a young woman. Like Xena, Buffy Summers is a flawed hero filled with her own darkness and angst. Following the Wuxia Pian of Hong Kong, the main character defeats evil enemies through her skill and abilities to perform death-defying feats. Professor South, in his book Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, states:

…"salvation" might be thought of as a process by which individuals, with the help of a "Greater Power," turn from living only for the self to the exclusion of the needs of others, to a life by which all of humanity is helped to suffer less. [Note 64]
This shows the self-sacrifice and greater good notions of the wuxia canon.

[51] Where the shift of the tale begins to metamorphose to suit an American audience is in the incorporation of the circle of friends who assist Buffy in her nightly vigil against evil vampires and demons. In addition to the incorporation of a group, rather than a single companion, Buffy the Vampire Slayer made it more palatable for the younger audience to accept the notions of heroism performed during a modern age within a group setting. Likewise, the change in dialogue to include modern phrases brought the wuxia format within the homes of younger viewers. If it had not been for its predecessor, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer might not have found an audience that welcomed the story line of a female action hero.

[52] While the American television industry experienced a changing format in action shows, the Hollywood movie industry began to follow suit. Although there were numerous Wuxia Pian styled movies made in the wake of Xena: Warrior Princess, such as The Matrix, X-Men, and Charlie's Angels, for the purpose of this study, I will limit the number of movies that I outline. The movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West and starring Angelina Jolie became one of the most popular movies in 2001. Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer metamorphosed to fit an American audience while maintaining the tenets of wuxia, the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider altered the wuxia canon to fit American viewers. Although the story of Lara Croft changed for the new audience, the basic qualities that were found in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the genesis of the American genre, Xena: Warrior Princess were still evident in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The protagonist of the movie, Lara Croft, demonstrates the quality of gallant nobility through the title that she inherited as a British aristocrat. Additionally, the interaction she displays with her household servants demonstrates the teachings of Confucius regarding treating of subjects in a judicious manner.

[53] In battling the evil forces that threaten the earth, the hero figure displays the valor necessary to complete her tasks, even when it appears as if she is overwhelmed by insurmountable odds. In the end, Lara Croft demonstrates the act of self sacrifice, as is outlined in the canons of wuxia when she chooses to forego saving her father in favor of saving the world. Although the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider does not introduce the student-mentor dynamics, it holds the qualities of early wuxia literature.

[54] The standards of wuxia were eloquently displayed in the movie Bulletproof Monk that was released on April 16, 2003. Directed by Paul Hunter and starring Chow Yun-Fat, the movie kept the traits of gallant nobility, valiant conduct, valor, and self-sacrifice deeply embedded in the monk character. In addition to these wuxia traits, the relationship of mentor-student was emphasized throughout the movie. While holding true to the philosophical concepts of wuxia, the filming of Bulletproof Monk enables the movie to fall within the category of Wuxia Pian. Through the use of elaborate stunts and photography, the alchemy of Taoist beliefs are reemphasized each time the characters were able to fly through the air or utilize superhuman abilities within their fight scenes.

[55] What marks a change in the story line of Bulletproof Monk is the merging of different cultures. While the hero is Tibetan, he is faced with the dilemma of choosing a successor who is neither trained, nor is from his same ethnic background. This added story line brings into light the social concerns surrounding the diffusion of different cultures, and the resolution that in order to survive the merging of two cultures is at times necessary. Bulletproof Monk not only follows the canon of wuxia literature, it carries the choreographic stunts of Wuxia Pian as well as introducing the new concepts of merging cultures.

Wuxia Pian Lives

Contrary to widely held belief, this guy is NOT made out of wood.

A wuxia pian kinda guy

[56] The transformative movement that took place amongst the Hong Kong movie directors and writers in the early 1960's resulted in the preservation of their style of ancient wuxia literature in ways that they could not have conceived. Just as the players who brought Xena: Warrior Princess to America are unable to perceive the true scope of their influence on the American culture, if asked, the Hong Kong directors and writers may very well be unable to comprehend how their act of cultural preservation impacted the American audience. Were it not for their revivalist movement of the wuxia mythology during the 1960's, and the subsequent emulation by producer, director Robert Tapert, the American audience would not have been covertly introduced to the heroic traits contained within wuxia mythology. Through the subsequent collective unconsciousness of all parties involved, the ancient mythological tales of wuxia literature will continue living not only in the Hong Kong cinema, but also within the American television and movie industry.


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